The Fable of the Lion and the Gazelle

Thomas Friedman? Dan Montano? Arthur M. Blank? Sue Tabor? Herb Caen? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator:  Last year I saw a motivational poster with a portrait of a lion. The text was a fable about lions and gazelles, and the title was something like the “The Key to Survival.” Paraphrasing: To survive the lion must catch the gazelle and the gazelle must outrun the lion. Do you recognize this saying, and do you know who created it?

Quote Investigator: Thomas Friedman helped to popularize the proverb about the lion and the gazelle by including it in his 2005 bestseller “The World is Flat” [TFLG]. He said that a sign written in Mandarin on the factory floor of an auto parts manufacturer in China recounted the tale. Friedman labeled the passage an “African proverb” and did not attempt to determine its origin. The quotation was disseminated via multiple avenues including his book and a motivational poster with the title “The Essence of Survival” that reprinted the text.

The earliest instance located by QI appeared in the Economist magazine in 1985 in an article titled “Lions or gazelles?” where the words were credited to a securities analyst named Dan Montano [DMLG]:

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

Stockbrokers and bankers at a recent London conference on financial technology* laughed appreciatively at this sally from Mr. Dan Montano of Montano Securities, an American equities dealer. They chuckled, perhaps, a touch indulgently at predictable American excess.

* The Stock Exchange: Deregulation and New Technology: Oyez International Business Communications. London June 5th and 6th.

Montano may have constructed this proverb himself, or he may have relayed words that he heard or read elsewhere. The Economist gave no other ascription. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1986 the science fiction magazine Analog published a variant that included an antelope instead of a gazelle. In addition, the introduction of a human character shifted the focus of the proverb [RCLA]:

A lion wakes up each morning thinking, “All I’ve got to do today is run faster than the slowest antelope.”

An antelope wakes up thinking, “All I’ve got to do today is run faster than the fastest lion.”

A human wakes up thinking, “To hell with who’s fastest, I’ll outlast the bastards.”

In 1987 the initial proverb was reprinted in the book “The Calculus of International Communications” and it was credited to Montano. The authors cited the Economist article and a business report by Montano [CCMJ]:

Montano, D. (1985). The stock exchange: Deregulation and new technology. Oyez International Business Communications, London Conference of Stockbrokers, June 5, 1985.

In 1988 the noted San Francisco columnist Herb Caen featured the quotation in an item about the department store manager Sue Tabor. She used the proverb because she thought it would help inspire her employees [STLG]:

It’s a jungle out there, tiger: No wonder things are so gung-ho at the downtown Nordstrom. Store mgr. Sue Tabor keeps the troops fired up by sending them “inspirational” messages, one of her latest and greatest being, “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” Atty. Richard J. Torre calls this a fine example of neo-Darwinian motivation.

In 1999 the book “Inside Home Depot” mentioned a framed poster that displayed the saying together with images of a lion and a gazelle. The picture was located outside a conference room next to the office of Arthur M. Blank, a co-founder of the retail giant Home Depot. After the description of the poster the book discussed the term “bleeding orange.” Orange is the color scheme associated with the corporation [ABHD]:

Bleeding Orange means running all the time “We understand that at times we look like lions and at times we look like gazelles,” explains Blank. Home Depot’s secret is that its Bleeding Orange culture means that everyone runs constantly and is always looking over his or her shoulder.

In 2005 the quote appeared in the book “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman as noted earlier in this post. On the Yahoo Answers website a questioner from circa 2006 wished to know about the lion and gazelle proverb and was pointed to Herb Caen [YAHC]:

Who quoted “Every morning in Africa a Gazelle wakes up? I am trying to find who authored the Lion and Gazelle philosophy

Best Answer – Chosen by Voters

Columnist Herb Caen wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle sometime back: “Every morning in Africa, …”

In conclusion, Dan Montano was an important nexus for the promotion of this proverb. He may also have created it though 1985 is a relatively recent date. QI would tentatively credit Montano. Thank you for your question. Be sure to keep properly hydrated if you plan to run extensively.

(This exploration was inspired by a question from Rk in the comment section at the Freakonomics blog of top quotation expert Fred Shapiro.)

Update history: On August 6, 2011 a citation to a 1986 issue of Analog magazine was added to the post.

[TFLG] 2005, The World is Flat: a Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman, Page 114, [1st edition], Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)

[DMLG] 1985 July 6, Economist, Special added section: “The other dimension: Technology and the City of London: A survey”, “Lions or gazelles?”, Page 37, Economist Newspaper Ltd., London. (Verified on microfilm)

[RCLA] 1986 July, Analog, Series: Science Fact, “The Long Stern Chase:  A Speculative Exercise” by Rick Cook, Start Page 32, Quote Page 36, Volume 106, Number 7, Davis Publications, Inc. (Google Books snippet; Many thanks to Dave Hause for verifying this cite on paper) link

[CCMJ] 1987, The Calculus of International Communications: A Study in the Political Economy of Transborder Data Flows by Meheroo Jussawalla and Chee-Wah Cheah, Page 7 and 25, Libraries Unlimited, Inc., Littleton, Colorado. (Verified on paper)

[STLG] 1988 December 15, San Francisco Chronicle, A Mess of Dottage by Herb Caen, Page B1, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank)

[ABHD] 1999, Inside Home Depot by Chris Roush, Page 43, McGraw-Hill Professional, New York. (Google Books preview)

[YAHC] Yahoo! Answers, Resolved Question, Who quoted “Every morning in Africa a Gazelle wakes up?” (Accessed answers.yahoo.com on 2011 August 5) link

5 thoughts on “The Fable of the Lion and the Gazelle

  1. Every Morning
    Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.

    Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must often outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.

    (So) It doesn’t matter whether you are a Lion or a Gazelle. When the sun comes up-You’d better be running.

    The poem was written on a PC, by a man in bed, by blinking his eye. His name was Ed, and he was dying of ALS, also know as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The PC was his only means of self-expression. The Danbury (Connecticut) Area computer society and the New Milford Hospital Foundation provided the system. Ed used infrared sensors to detect the motion of his eyelids. He blinked to navigate through menus of options, common words, and phrases, and letters of the alphabet. If that sounds like a difficult way to communicate, consider the alternative…June 28, 1994, PC Magazine, Page 87, by Bill Machrone.

  2. Mike: Thanks for sharing an interesting citation. The June 28, 1994 article
    in PC Magazine can be viewed by following this link.

    The author Bill Machrone says that the effort described in the article to
    help people with disabilities by providing computers began in 1991.
    The fable appeared in the Economist in 1985. Hence, the ALS patient
    may have been typing a passage that he had seen previously.

  3. There is an unassessed Wikipedia article crediting Ethiopian author Abe Gubegna with having penned this proverb. Any chance this is simply common folk wisdom from an East African group?

  4. Abe Gubegna is also cited in a book called ‘Running with the Kenyans’ by Adharanand Finn. I suspect that is is just an African folk lore fable.

  5. I’m no expert, but I am from Africa and it’s a known fact that Lions hunt mostly between dusk and dawn. If this was in fact a quote by an African, he was not well informed or connected with his heritage.

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